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Ambiguity in Videogames, Part II: Uncertain Possibilities Better Be Interesting

In a recent post, I outlined the concept of ambiguity (when a story leaves its audience uncertain about things such as what has happened or will happen or what a character is thinking).

Spoiler Note: This post contains big spoilers about Bioshock: Infinite and Borderlands, and minor spoilers about Shadow of the Colossus. Paragraphs including spoilers about a game feature that game’s title in bolded caps.

In a recent post, I outlined the concept of ambiguity (when a story leaves its audience uncertain about things such as what has happened or will happen or what a character is thinking). This post will explore what I consider to be one of the best and one of the worst recent examples of ambiguity in videogame storytelling.

Some of the richest ambiguity in recent videogame storytelling occurs at the end of BIOSHOCK: INFINITE. Like some examples in my previous post, this ambiguity involves the fate of the main characters after the last scene, but it also involves the connection between the two final scenes (and, to a lesser extent, I think, the rules of the world/multiverse). In the second-to-last scene, we see the protagonist Booker allowing himself to be drowned to prevent various versions of his future self from doing monstrous things, and we see the many Elizabeths from various timelines thus prevented start to wink out of existence. Yet after the credits, we see a scene in which a young Booker is alive and, presumably, so is an infant Anna/Elizabeth, suggesting that some timeline survives in which they can be together. The connection between these two scenes is ambiguous, as is Anna/Elizabeth’s presence—we hear but do not see a baby crying in her crib. We don’t know if the last scene means that the drowning didn’t prevent the terrible futures because this Booker could still make a bad decision, or if maybe it did somehow and this timeline is one in which that danger is not available for some reason.

The ending of BIOSHOCK: INFINITE adds a note of hope without wholly erasing the danger of a bad outcome. This tension between good and bad, or in some cases between options that each have their good and bad elements, is at the core of what makes ambiguity an interesting storytelling element. This narrative technique won’t always work, it won’t please everybody, it doesn’t need to be there all the time, and it usually needs to be used in moderation, but it does have a place in gaming. Players will get used to the idea that even though (as the previous post explains) gameplay has win conditions and unambiguous rules and quantitative elements, the stories that are interwoven with that gameplay can be less clear-cut. Not all players will like this, and not all games will do it, and that’s fine—ambiguity is just one tool in game developers’ toolkits, useful in some games for some audiences.

On the other hand, ambiguity can be really poorly handled, too. The ending of BORDERLANDS springs to mind. The story builds up several plotlines before abandoning most of them without meaningful attempts at resolution in a train-wreck of an ending that pleased basically no one. It also spends a whole game’s worth of time telling you that there’s some amazing revelation in the Vault and then delivering absolutely nothing amazing. This is not thoughtful ambiguity but we-don’t-know-how-to-end-things ambiguity. It occurs in a game that people didn’t play (or design) primarily for the story, but by choosing to incorporate a story built on setting up suspense and expectations (what’s in the Vault?) without being able to deliver on them, Borderlands created a bad and avoidable situation in which the only possible responses to the story would be either negative or indifferent. The failure of the story of the original Borderlands (and Gearbox’s much improved storytelling in Borderlands 2) reminds us that an ending has to feel like it matches the rest of the game, at least in retrospect—an ending can be surprising but shouldn’t feel like a complete departure. The ambiguous ending of SHADOW OF THE COLOSSUS works because the whole game has an uneasy, narratively sparse feel to it, so being left with more of that same uneasiness, but in a new situation, doesn’t feel out of place, it just gives you new information to process as you continue asking the same questions about the morality of the things occurring in the game. The surprise connections to the previous Bioshock games in the ending of BIOSHOCK: INFINITE work because once you see them, they were there all along (and you probably noticed some of them at the time but didn’t know what to make of them yet). The surprise at the ending of Borderlands doesn’t lead to new rewarding avenues of thought, partly because the questions it raises don’t have any particular moral, ethical, or emotional interest to them and partly because they don’t shed interesting new light on much of the previous material.

So what do you think about ambiguity in videogames? Is there a place for it? Does story telling work better in certain games than others?  Is there just too much tension between clear-cut, win-condition-oriented gameplay and ambiguous storytelling? What makes ambiguity work well in games? What games have used it well (or poorly)?

Written By: Brandon Perton

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